The Way of the Cross

The church has always had problems. We may talk about "restoring the church of the first century," but we really don’t want to do that. At least, we don't want to restore any of the churches of the first century that we know about! The reason we know about specific first century churches is because they had severe enough problems that a letter had to be written to them to address their problems. Who in their right mind would want to restore the Corinthian church (we begin 1 Corinthians today in our daily Bible reading).

As Paul begins, he suggests that many of the problems at Corinth are caused because the Christians there are trying to look at things like the world sees them. They saw things from the perspective of philosophers seeking logic and wisdom and Jews who were seeking miraculous signs. Now Paul will do both of these-- logic and miracles. But listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-23 (from the NLT)

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” 20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

The church was looking for philosophy (wisdom) and religious experience (signs). Several years ago, I heard Jack Reese suggest that the church still tends to seek God through wisdom and signs. What follows is my take on these two ways (so don’t blame Dr. Reese here).

  • The Way of Wisdom: We are a people of the book who “speak where the Bible speaks.” The problem is that we not always “silent where the Bible is silent.” We developed a system of received interpretations and entrenched traditions based on inferences that were not necessarily necessary and examples that were not apostolically approved. Every detail of how to do church from how to do our music to how to use our church buildings were deduced and systematized and made tests of fellowship. We defended our system was if it were holy writ itself. That is the way of wisdom.

  • The Way of Signs: May rightly came to reject this head-only religion that argues over every issues as if it were the issue. They seek a more relational of God, and that has to be a good thing. But what is not good is when a willingness to leave behind the controls scripture in order to chase a religious experience. The “if-it-feels-good-do-it” approach fails theologically as well as it fails ethically. The genuineness or our worship and church experience is not tied to how it makes us feel. That is the way of signs.

Paul rejects both the way of wisdom and the way of signs for a third way— the way of the cross. In fact, it is the cross that is both God’s wisdom and sign, “Christ the power [signs] of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). When Jesus’ enemies asked him for a sign, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:18). Their sign would be the cross and the resurrection. The message of the cross was both foolishness and a stumbling block to the world, but it a foolishness that saves those who believe (1 Cor 1:20). You don’t hear much about the cross stressed by the prosperity preachers on religious TV or touted by political pundits (on both sides) who cherry-pick scripture for proof texts. But Paul said that the message of the cross was all he wanted to talk about (1 Cor 2:1-2)

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The way of wisdom and signs caused the divisions in Corinth where they argued about their preachers and their rights (wisdom). They argued about who had the best spiritual gifts (signs). The message of the gospel is that God's ultimate wisdom and sign in Jesus Christ and His cross.

That message didn't impress the wise men and the scholars of Paul's day; it won’t impress them today. But that message is the essence of the gospel and the center of who we are to be.